Happy Birthday to Nicolaus Copernicus! The Most Misunderstood Man in the Universe

CopernicusOn this day in 1573, a man was born who would alter the universe, in a somewhat literal way. Nicolaus Copernicus, a Renaissance mathematician and astronomer who devised a heliocentric model of the universe which positioned the sun at the center of the universe as opposed to the earth.

Just prior to his death in 1543, Copernicus published his findings in a book entitled, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelstium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres). In the dedication of his book, written to Pope John III, Copernicus stated:

I CAN easily conceive, most Holy Father, that as soon as some people learn that in this book which I have written concerning the revolutions of the heavenly bodies, . . . they will cry out at once that I and my theory should be rejected.

Copernicus understood that his discovery would completely change the way humanity would view the world. The idea that the earth was at the center of the universe had become a central tenet of the Catholic church, and any theory that challenged this idea would have disastrous effects. And as a Catholic priest, by publishing his conclusions Copernicus was taking a huge risk on more than one level, but this was an occupational hazard that he was willing to face.

In reading his introduction, we see that Copernicus was stressing that his discovery was of a physical nature (relating to the science of physics), but his subsequent detractors only saw the metaphysical implications. And just as his contemporary readers misunderstood this discovery, so do modern readers. In his Implications of the Copernican Principle for Our Future Prospects, Richard Gott III states:

The Copernican revolution taught us that it was a mistake to assume, without sufficient reason, that we occupy a privileged position in the Universe. Darwin showed that, in terms of origin, we are not privileged above other species. Our position around an ordinary star in an ordinary galaxy in an ordinary supercluster continues to look less and less special. . . . The Copernican Principle works because, of all the places for intelligent observers to be, there are by definition only a few special places, so you are likely to be in a nonspecial place.

Gott’s “nonspecial” argument is a non-sequitur. How he (and other modern atheists) draw this conclusion from the Copernican Principle is complete and utter nonsense. The fact that the universe is not physically the center of the physical universe does not mean that the earth is not a specially designed planet on which intelligent life exists. In fact, if one looks at the necessary conditions that are required for life to exist on a planet, there are one of two possibilities, either earth was created by an intelligent, powerful, pre-existent being, or, as a physics professor at Iowa State University stated in a class I took, earth is an “extremely lucky planet”. Really?! Luck?!

When I was a kid, I used to fantasize about life on other planets and the possibility of moving to the moon or perhaps some galaxy far, far away. Perhaps that was because my mom used to let me stay up past my bedtime and watch Star Trek: The Next Generation, or perhaps it was because I was introduced to the awesomeness that is Star Wars at the young age of 7. Those fantasies are long gone (but my nerd-status love for the aforementioned sci-fi fantasies are still very near), and as we learn more about the Universe in which we live and the planetary systems therein, the chances of extra-terrestrial life being a reality have become slim to nil.

My hope was built upon the theory that since there are so many stars and so many planets out there, surely there is one that can support life. I believed as astronomer Robert Jastrow did, “The university is populated by innumerable earths and, perhaps, innumerable forms of life.” But there are two sides to every equation and inequality. And the other side of that theory is the reality of the conditions that are needed for a planet to be deemed habitable. Here are some of the necessary factors for planetary habitability:

Within Galactic Habitable Zone
Orbiting a main sequence G2 dwarf star
Protected by gas giant planets
Within circumstellar habitable zone
Nearly circular orbit
Oxygen-rich atmosphere
Correct mass
Orbited by relatively large moon to stabilize planetary axis
Magnetic field
Plate tectonics
Ratio of liquid water and continents
Terrestrial planet
Moderate rate of rotation

All of these factors must exists at the same time and place in the universe. And it just so happens that earth is that place and now is that time. Lucky? I think not.

Some really smart people devised a big long math problem and discovered that the mathematical probability for all of the factors for the sustainability of life existing in the same place at the same time is about 1/1,000,000,000,000,000 (a conservative number, by the way). When you compare that number to the 100,000,000,000 stars in the galaxy, the likely hood of another earth-like planet existing in our galaxy is improbable. In fact, it is 10,000 times less likely for another habitable planet to exist in our galaxy. (For more on this, check out Dr. Donald Brownlee’s bestselling book, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life is Uncommon in the Universe.)

When you consider those number, our planet really is special. The mathematical improbability for a habitable planet to exist in our galaxy tells us that we were no cosmological coincidence, rather we are an astronomical anomaly! If those like Richard Gott III and my ISU astronomy professor understood this, perhaps they would not have drawn an improper conclusions from the Copernican Principle, or, perhaps if they would have just read Copernicus’ dedication they would not have committed this non sequitur.

In his book, The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler referred to Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus as “the book that nobody read”. Perhaps it should instead be called, “the dedication that nobody read”.


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